Lessons from X: How to bring moonshot thinking to your NGO

Astro Teller, director of moonshots at Silicon Valley innovator X. Photo by: Stuart Ramson / UN Foundation

NEW YORK — When your job title is “director of Moonshots” at a company called X, and your products include giant stratospheric balloons, it may not seem like you would have much to offer professionals working to improve sanitation in urban slums, help smallholder farmers increase their yields, or extend health services to the hardest to reach communities.

Read Devex’s coverage of Global Goals Week here.

Yet Astro Teller was an in-demand speaker at United Nations General Assembly side events last week, with delegates wanting to understand how X — a sibling company of Google that works on radical solutions to vast challenges using cutting-edge technology — operates.

The Sustainable Development Agenda is one of the frameworks the X team considers when identifying the kinds of problems they want to solve. And the approach taken by this self-described “culture engineer” holds valuable lessons for leaders of NGOs and others working to accelerate progress on sustainable development solutions.

Devex listened in on Teller’s advice at We the Future, a side event organized by the Skoll Foundation and the United Nations Foundation that presented models for change to accelerate progress on sustainable development solutions in New York last week. Here are five lessons he offered.

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.